Let It Go, or...

The Yoga Lesson in Disney's Frozen

 

If you know the song, you’re singing it in your head right now. 

There’s a lesson for yoga practice in there. Yeah. I didn’t know either. The lesson is this: If you look perfect in practice, yer doin it wrong. 

I was actually sick of “the Frozen song” until a new favorite yoga teacher used it to teach this badass lesson.

Let that image shit go.

I was traveling through San Francisco one autumn, desperately seeking yoga. I was sore and lethargic from sitting on airplanes and eating irregularly and not moving my body.

The only class I could fit in was an advanced level hot vinyasa flow. Right away, I was like “ugh, not my style.” I mean, I love practicing challenging poses at home, but this would be in public. In a heated room. With a teacher I didn’t know. At a strange studio. In a city far from home.

I felt really, really self-conscious.

I worried that I’d fall on my face and embarrass myself, so I kinda wanted to hide. I worried that the teacher wouldn’t immediately recognize that I’m a teacher, so I kinda wanted to stand out.

But I was desperate for a class.

“I can handle this,” I told myself. “I’m good at yoga!”

Ego can be a bitch. 

I walked up ten minutes before class, and there was a line of people waiting to check in. When I got into the huge room, the only spots left were near the very back or way up front. I took a spot in front, hoping that this clearly very popular teacher was one of those ignore-the-front-row types.

He bounced in radiating “lessss goooo!” energy. He bopped over to the sound system plugin. There was no pretense, no yoga voice, nothing but genuine enthusiasm. What happened next endeared Buddy Macuha to me forever.

The music started, “Snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen…”

I thought, “No. This is a joke. He’s going to turn this crap off any second now.”

He didn’t. 

Buddy said, “I love this song. It’s teaching me. Listen!” And he mimed belting the chorus into a microphone as Idina Menzel’s voice filled the room, “Let it go. Let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore.”

Buddy presented the theme of the practice this way. He encouraged us to let go, to push a little past where we felt comfortable and just practice. To try something that’s “too hard.”

“We’re an advanced class here,” Buddy explained, “You know how to keep yourself physically safe. Just don’t play it safe.”

If we felt like transitioning through a handstand, great. If we fell on our faces, great.

“Is there a pose you’re afraid of? Let’s do it! Time to let go of that fear,” he said.

The word fear landed like a brick in my stomach —

I was afraid. My throat got heavy as my eyes started to burn with tears. My mind tightened. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I have no business coming to an advanced class. Maybe I’m not good at yoga. Maybe I’m not a good yoga teacher. Maybe I’m a fraud. 

I pictured myself standing, rolling up my mat and suffering the awkwardness of leaving class before it even started. “Better than staying and crying, for God’s sake,” I thought. I was already way out of my comfort zone, and Buddy (and the Frozen song) were telling me to go further.

I took a deep breath, ready to get up… and that’s when Buddy stood right next to me.

Shit.

In a panic, I did the only other thing I could think of: I stayed. At least until he walked away.

“Take a deep breath,” he said, still right beside me. “And let.. it.. go.”

And I did. 

Watery-eyed, I sang the opening AUṀ with abandon, letting my ragged voice ring out. Buddy smiled at me. I shakily smiled back. 

We were up and moving within seconds, no time to hesitate. Buddy called out the poses in majorette cadence, snapping his fingers in a Z formation.

“Down Dog!” Snap snap.

“Chaturanga!” Snap snap.

“Up Dog!” Snap snap.

I smiled bigger in the privacy of Down Dog. “This guy is out there!” I thought. “There’s no way I could be the weirdest person in the room even if I tried.”

My mind-shackles loosened. I tried poses that made me nervous. I fell over and wanted to melt into the floor with embarrassment. I got up. I fell over again. I laughed. I left my self-consciousness in a sweaty puddle under my feet. I nailed some poses I didn’t think possible, trembling with effort and triumph. And I had an amazing, no-holds-barred, utterly joyous practice. 

These lyrics from the second verse still ring in my memory:

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all

What are you afraid of? 

Falling over?

Embarrassing yourself?

Not knowing everything there is to know about yoga?

Getting called a fraud?

Being laughed at?

In the words of Disney’s Frozen and the wonderful teacher Buddy Macuha: “Let it go.”

Push yourself. Find your edge by actually visiting it. Peek over the edge, even. Scary things are not so scary when you look at them in the light of your own strength.

 

Dear Buddy, thanks again.

 

Leslie Kaminoff Made Me Cry (and it was awesome)

I'll post again later with more details about Leslie Kaminoff's four-day immersion, more context, more specifics on what I learned about breathing mechanics. For now, this post is about how a sprinkle of new experience changed my everything. I'm writing to those that shared this journey with me.

To you Silk Bridge attendees, thank you for your care, your powerful words, your outpouring of love that held me together on that day. I hope this post starts to answer all the beautiful questions you've been asking me.

Please leave me a comment here? I'd love to know more about what you felt, what you saw, what you learned. Your words here will bolster my healing and help tremendously as I continue to explore. As we learned in our Day 3 partner work, there's nothing like another perspective.


I took a full breath for the first time in 11 years, and it felt totally natural and completely unfamiliar. 

When I got home that evening, I was visibly exhausted and confused and overwhelmed. My partner Tony took one look at me and said, "Let's jump in the ocean." I put on my bikini. We walked across the sand and into the water. This is pretty much what I told him.

I started with the pee story, the infinity-pee that happened right after working with Leslie.

It felt like the longest pee of my life. Seriously, I just kept peeing and peeing until I felt hollow. This is not a metaphor. I wobble-walked to the bathroom, clung to the wall as I slowly slid down to the seat and peed and cried.

What?

Leslie Kaminoff made me cry.

How? Wait... why? WHAT?

He asked to work with me as a demonstration. I'd mentioned earlier in the day that I was in a car crash a long time ago that fractured my T12 vertebra.

I said okay.

He had me lie down with my knees over a bolster, and then he put a hand on my belly and mooshed his fingers around. He had me notice the amount of tension in my abdomen and pointed out that my muscles were pretty active for a person lying down and doing nothing but breathing.

We'd learned that breathing is shape change. We'd learned that the abdominal cavity contains non-compressible stuff, so it changes shape but not volume, like a water balloon, while the thoracic cavity contains the lungs (and other stuff), so it changes shape and volume, like an accordion.

When I breathe in, my lungs and rib cage have to expand, which means my non-compressible juicy bits have to poof out somewhere. But whoops, my belly muscles are holding everything in, which makes it impossible for me to take a full breath.

It's been 11 years since the car crash.

My bones and muscles healed beautifully. I worked damn hard on healing my movement ability, too. No one ever told me that maybe I could heal my breathing, or that I'd even need to. My breathing was fine, better than normal according to the machine with the floating ball and tube thingy in the hospital.

In 2005, one year after my spine fractured, I had no reason to believe that I wasn't fully recovered, except I couldn't dance. Specifically, I couldn't pirouette. I told myself "It's okay, you're alive, you can still teach, you love yoga" and I carried on.

In 2007, I had surgery to remove vocal nodes — my otolaryngologist told me the nodes had developed from overusing my voice, and have I ever considered a speech pathologist and a singing coach? No, but sure, off I went, adding to my existing team of physical therapists, massage therapists, Pilates teachers and yoga teachers. 

No one told me I wasn't breathing fully.

Then, I learned about the water balloon and the accordion.

This is what I remember happening as I lay there, under Leslie's hand.

  • Breathe in.
  • Breathe out. Hold the breath out.
  • Engage belly muscles, try to push Leslie's fingers out as he pushes in.
  • Disengage belly muscles. Relax completely.
  • Inhale. (Leslie lets go.)
  • Inhale some more.
  • Inhale even more.
  • Inhale so much it feels like a yawn that is yawning.

The release after that infinity-inhale was like sliding into a warm bath. I feel more soft and relaxed than I've ever been while fully awake and aware. Leslie leads me through a few more repetitions of the sequence, and that's when something in my spine unlocks.

It's sudden and scary and completely unexpected.

My entire history of spinal injury and breath-related trauma is rushing through my subconscious at this point. I'm not thinking thoughts, I'm feeling them run through my body. After more than a decade of restricted breathing, my nervous system has no clue what's going on.

I feel the panic rising.

My body is convinced I'm in danger. My ribs are moving with my breath — that's what it is. I feel unstable. Something is moving that should not be moving, something that has not moved for many years, not since everything around it broke. I start trembling.

Leslie talks softly to me. I can't remember the words. I'm falling through the floor, through space, totally out of control. 

Leslie keeps talking and he strokes my forehead. "This is natural. This is expected. You're doing great." I realize I've been sobbing. 

My fingertips start tingling after a few seconds. I mention this. Oh, it's the beginnings of hyperventilation. Hold the breath out. Wait for the inhale. That's all.

There's more belly-mooshing with Leslie's fingers, more gentle coaching to let the breathing happen. My bucket handles and pump handles are moving so much that the soft tissue of my upper chest gets an uncomfortable stretch with each inhale.

I am simultaneously freaked out and overjoyed.

Just as my conscious mind starts to enjoy the awesomeness of this newly enormous breath, my belly muscles start to lock down.

I remember practicing prāṇāyāma in the hospital. Lying there unable to move, ujjayi breathing gave me a sense of control. That's what's happening at this point. My get-a-grip survival habits are kicking in, hardening my abdominal wall and constricting my throat.

Leslie is still mooshing and smoothing. I'm sure he can feel me tensing up, and I tell him that I'm trying to relax and not fight it but it's not working.

He says that his hand is having a conversation with my belly that is wholly independent of "what's happening up here," gesturing to our faces. Leslie mooshes a little deeper and wiggles my right thigh, rotating it at the hip joint. "Can you feel that moving under my hand? That's your psoas. Kinda cool."

He keeps going with the mooshing and wiggling, and my body starts to feel more solidly on the floor. As I relax, my breathing gets much less big and deep. Right when I take a purposefully large inhale because I'm trying to be a really good demonstration person, Leslie says, "See how little of a breath you can get away with. You don't need much for just lying here."

The teeny tiny breath, he explains, is the opposite end of the spectrum from the huge breath. There's an obsession in yoga with stretching further and going deeper. Leslie suggests that we spend some practice time at the other extreme to see how that feels and experience a different context.

Everything gets fuzzy after that.

I sit up suuuper slowly and try my newly expanded breath in a different orientation to gravity. It is exhilarating. My vision seems sharper than usual.

Leslie helps me stand, again in super slow motion. I feel like I'm surfing the wobbly earth. He coaches me to roll down and hang out in a standing forward fold for a while. He tips me backwards onto him, resetting my body's relationship to gravity in that shape. He sets me back up onto my own feet and I roll up from there.

He asks if I'm okay. I do an awkward nod-shake-nod, and he says, "It's okay to not be okay."


I'm still processing this new information. There's a great big lot of it, in my nervous system, my muscles, my emotions, everywhere. I'm crying as I'm sitting here typing, feeling grateful and amazed and a little bit pissed.

I know that what I experienced is a high-water mark, not a pivot point, like "Yay, my breathing is fixed forever! Pirouettes for days! Thanks for the belly-moosh, LK!" 

Nope.

There's work to be done. My habits creep back into my body, my saṁskaras of 11 years will die hard, and I will feel every bit of that burn.

This is my new yoga practice. My tapaḥ. My sacrificial fire that transmutes my offerings, fueled by breath.

The Yoga of CrossFit

Those two don't go together, right? Well...

My CrossFit journey started this time last year, in May 2014. CrossFit Oahu set me up with my own personal training coach, Christine "Wojo" Wojciehowski, who patiently walked me through all the basics of common CrossFit movements and terminology. EMOM. AMRAP. 1RM. OHS. HSPU. WOD.* And so on.

An alignment nerd after my own heart, Coach Wojo was meticulous in her observation and feedback. "Initiate from your hips." "Keep the spine neutral." Even better, she reminded me over and over, "Write this workout down, and note the weight you used." She said, "You'll be surprised at how far you'll have come in a month." Or two months. Or a year.

I learned how to modify exercises I couldn't do yet, like handstand push-ups. I learned the difference between a push press and a push jerk. I learned that it doesn't matter how much weight you put on your barbell if you haul it up with a disorganized spine and janky kinematic rhythm, kind of like doing arm balances in yoga. I learned to be uncompromising in my form and unperturbed by others' "performance," also like yoga. And, I learned to keep a detailed logbook.

Rewind 10 more years. In May 2004, I'd just taken my first steps without the support of a titanium back brace. A drunk driver had hit my vehicle, and my spine broke in the crash. During the long recovery, my casual yoga practice turned into a serious dedication to pranayama — mindful, full body breathing. I ached to move my body more, but I couldn't even sit up in bed by myself. I couldn't walk to the bathroom. I was a yogini, a dancer, a theatre actor, and I was bedridden.

That Stephanie didn't have a logbook. In fact, I deliberately avoided leaving any evidence of my brokenness. I refused photographs, and I abandoned my journal. "This is not me," I told myself. I envisioned the story of my life blipping over the months of recovery, a blurry non-event, like the third grade photos that never quite made the family album. (I hid them. It was the '80s. Sorry, Mom.) It was denial as an attempt at bravery.

When I had a bad day, I assumed all my days henceforth would be bad. When I had a good day, I assumed all my days henceforth would be good, until the next bad day came along. I had no way of removing the emotional blinders of trauma to view my healing process clearly. Through all of the ups and downs, the overall trend was definitely upward, but if you asked me on a bad day I'd report otherwise.

When I finally stepped onto my yoga mat again, I cried with fear and with freedom. I had indelible knowledge that I was not invincible — I could and would break — but I wasn't dead. Each practice was a victory, and I could feel something starting to happen inside, something slowly getting stronger, more confident, less fearful and fragile. I committed myself to the yogic principles of non-violence, consistent practice, and self-study. Still, I avoided my journal.

As a result, when I pressed up into my first headstand after the crash, I had no clue how I got there. The headstand press was a monumental achievement, concrete evidence that I was healing beautifully. Sure, I'd been working on it, but for how long? And how often? What poses preceded the successful attempt? It was magical and I didn't care... until I couldn't do it again.

My mind raced: What did I do? What didn't I do? What's wrong??

No breadcrumbs. No way to get back to where I once was. I practiced on, but I admit, every time my body overcame a physical challenge it seemed like a happy accident. When I finally got another headstand, I thought, whoops, I guess that's cool.

Back to my first "real" CrossFit WOD last year, my very first experience of working out with the fire breathers, the twice-a-weekers, and the newbies like me, all in the same group. It reminded me of my very first yoga class: I knew I had the basics down and yet I still felt clueless.

My WOD book from that time lists my maximum effort particulars:

  • Snatch 1RM — 25 lbs
  • Deadlift 1RM — 65 lbs
  • Pull-ups — 1 rep, using the thickest resistance band for assistance
  • Push-ups — 2 reps, wobbly ones, from my knees

I couldn't run 200 meters without feeling like I wanted to throw up, or go home, or both.

Now, 12 months later, I'm regularly snatching 70 lbs, deadlifting 135 lbs. I'm still working on that one unassisted strict pull-up. It's coming. I can do standard push-ups in quick sets of 5, and last week I did my first hand-release push-ups, a plyometric movement that requires explosive strength, stability, and hardcore confidence. I regularly run 800 meters in under 4 minutes, which is further and faster that I ever have in my life. All of this without even considering puking. Win.

And double win: I know my strength and skill are not happy accidents. I've traced my steps. Before 135 lbs, I lifted 130 lbs. Before that, 125. I can look up the dates. I can find my way back.

CrossFit (and Coach Wojo) taught me that recording my progress is key to feeling accomplished, to knowing what exactly has changed and by how much. After each WOD, I write down how many reps I did, at what weight, and sometimes how fast. I note when my form started to break down, when and if I dropped down in weight as the workout went on, and a number of other factors that affect my work, like sleep and nutrition and stress level.

Logbook = journal with total objectivity.

do not log my workouts to determine whether I'm strong or weak, better or worse, awesome or lamesauce; rather, I record my observations like a scientist so I have clear data on myself at an exact point in time. Furthermore, I have evidence that the work happened. I definitely did something. On a definite date. At a definite weight. For a definite length of time. It's all here in the logbook.

Call it outcome-focus. Fixation. Call it vanity, even. Too goal-oriented to be yoga.

Or, call it self-awareness. Call it a mindfulness practice, with supportive notes. Documenting landmarks on the endless journey. Small, daily affirmations with this simple proof: "Today, I did this." No subjectivity. No inner monologue of judgmental chatter. That 80-lb barbell came off the floor 30 times. For sure. And I felt like a badass.

And then, weeks later, I get to feel like a badass again when I re-read my notes.

There are still ups and downs, and charting out my growth over the last year clearly and unequivocally shows that the trend is upward. I might have a down day, or a down week. But now I have data that show I'm putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis and I am getting somewhere. I have evidence that my down days consistently lead to up days.

Discouraged by a string of missed workouts? Derailed by the holidays? Flip flip flip the pages. Oh right, I'm a badass on a badass journey. Motivation, check.

Here's the yoga of CrossFit.

The practice of CrossFit, or yoga, isn't goal-driven if you don't have a goal. Case in point: I don't care what weight ends up being the heaviest lift of my life. I don't have an arbitrary goal time or goal number of reps in mind when I work out. Every time I step into the box, I'm focused on being the best that I can be that day: giving my whole heart, observing without judging, breathing. And every time I step onto my yoga mat, I'm focused on the exact. same. thing.

I am compassionately, non-violently celebrating my strength.
I am dedicated to consistent practice.
I am committed to knowing myself as I am, being curious about my growth, and accepting myself as I change.

There have been times when I look back on the just-finished WOD and think, "Oh boy, I'm a wreck. Everyone else was lifting way more than I was. I'm way outta my league." Like the bedridden Stephanie of years past, I want to erase the feelings of inadequacy by refusing to document the weak spot. But I grab my logbook anyway, and I write down the weight I did, the time, the reps... And there it is, in shaky blue ink, my weight, time, and reps from a similar workout a few months ago.

I may not be the strongest in the box, but I am the strongest Stephanie Keiko Kong that ever lived, and I've got the log to prove it.

P.S. Thanks, Coach Wojo.

*For the uninitiated and desperately curious:

  • EMOM = every minute on the minute
  • AMRAP = as many reps/rounds as possible
  • 1RM = one rep max, the amount of weight lifted in a single maximum effort
  • OHS = overhead squat, a standard squat with a barbell held overhead
  • HSPU = handstand push-up
  • WOD = workout of the day, always different, always challenging, always scalable to individual needs